[permaculture] Polyculture+Tech Part I: The Permaculture Information Web- Growing Guilds | Food + Tech Connect

Lawrence London lfljvenaura at gmail.com
Sat Nov 28 22:13:11 EST 2015

[Attn: Scott and anyone interested in helping revive this worthy project.
- Scanned drawings, photos, diagrams could be used instead of a complex
graphical interface to illustrate relationships between plants and animals
to help move the project forward in a timely fashion. LL]

Polyculture+Tech Part I: The Permaculture Information Web- Growing Guilds |
Food + Tech Connect

Polyculture+Tech Part I: The Permaculture Information Web- Growing Guilds
by Stephanie Gerson
20 Apr 2011

As part of the agricultural sustainability movement, backyard, urban, and
rural gardeners and farmers are increasingly attempting to grow
polycultures.  Permaculture guilds
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Permaculture#Guild> are designed polycultural
systems, composed of plants, animals, fungi, and other organisms that grow
particularly well together.  Perhaps the oldest and best-known guild is the
Three Sisters, which consists of corn, squash, and beans and has been grown
throughout Mesomerica for thousands of years.  The corn acts as a pole for
the climbing beans, bacteria in the beans’ roots fertilize the corn and
squash, and the squash acts as a shade structure for the roots of all three
‘sisters,’ keeping their roots cool and holding moisture in the soil.

If you’ve ever braved Permaculture guild design, you’ll know it’s
challenging.  That’s because designing guilds isn’t about selecting
individual crops, but about curating meaningful relationships between
organisms.  It’s about designing complex adaptive systems, in this case,
agroecosystems.  Designing agroecosystems requires systems design tools,
tools that enable us to understand, design, and manage human and naturally
systems in a more holistic way.  So, *what would a design tool for curating
meaningful ecological relationships look like? *

A decade ago, inspired by this question, I conceived of a web-based
application for designing Permaculture guilds.  I solicited a team of
developers, secured funding, and began project managing the development of
the application, which was dubbed (now embarrassingly) the *Permaculture
Information Web*.  And thus were planted the seeds of awesomeness.  But in
time, I meandered off to grad school, funding dried up, and the project has
since been cryogenically frozen.  That is, until there’s interest in
unfreezing it.

In the interest of a potential resuscitation, here’s the vision.

My intention for the application is to enable gardeners and farmers, rural
and urban, to design and grow Permaculture guilds.  The interface of the
application would be similar to those of concept-mapping tools, which allow
users to explicitly define and interact with relationships between
components.  Although it’s not quite a design app, I’m thinking in terms of
Thinkmap’s Visual Thesaurus <http://www.visualthesaurus.com/>, an online,
interactive thesaurus.  When word is entered, say *network*, it becomes
orbited by its synonyms, which are closer or farther away from the original
word based on how close or far away they are in meaning.  When one of the
synonyms is clicked, it too becomes orbited by its synonyms, and so on,
enabling an exploration of language as a complex web of interrelated

Similarly, designing a Permaculture guild is less compatible with ‘looking
up’ companion plants individually and moreso with exploring webs of
interrelated organisms.  In terms of user experience, users would begin by
entering settings, denoting their constraints and preferences, e.g. climate
zone, size of plot, preferences for food/medicinal crops, etc.  Based on
these settings, as with the Visual Thesaurus, users would identify a core
element, say a peach tree, which would become orbited by ‘synonymous’ i.e.
companion organisms.  Clicking on different companion organisms would
generate different polycultural configurations, enabling users to
iteratively and experimentally design guilds.  Clicking on a link between
organisms would elicit information about the ecological relationship
between them, nitrogen-fixing or otherwise.

Migrating this concept into the 2.0 era would allow users to create and
edit information about these relationships, ‘follow’ other users with
similar settings, share their guild designs, and even collaboratively
design guilds.  See my geeky wireframe below, but imagine much more:
concept-mapping tool meets Wikipedia for agroecology, with robust social
network features.

Gardeners and farmers can certainly design guilds without the aid of
software, but beyond guild design, this application would enable the
crowdsourcing of information about polycultural relationships and the
cultivation of systems thinking.  Take the idea to its fullest expression,
and you can *imagine a collaborative resource for relationship-based
polycultural design and pedagogy.* In short, a valuable manifestation of
the Food+Tech vision.  I may soon pose this guild design app at an upcoming
Food+Tech hackathon, and if you’re interested in its resuscitation, feel
free to get in touch with me directly <misstephanie.gerson at gmail.com>.

Ultimately, the matching underlying structure between online social
networks and biological networks suggests an inherent compatibility between
web 2.0 technologies and polycultural systems.  It’s therefore not
surprising that 2.0 tools should be well-suited to the reality we’re trying
to cultivate, both metaphorically and literally.  Which is precisely the
focus of this series: *how modern information and communication
technologies can enable polyculturalism in the way that we design (Part I,
here), eat (Part II), and buy (Part III) food and food systems. *Stay tuned.

More about Stephanie:

Stephanie Gerson is a social media and innovation strategist. She has
worked with a rotating exhibit of startups and social ventures, and is
currently based at Purpose <http://www.purpose.com>, builder and incubator
of global social movements. As a Permaculturist, WIRED subscriber, and
beekeeper who majored in Science, Technology, and Society (STS), worked on
a biodynamic farm, and lived in an Earthship, Stephanie feels right at home
at Food+Tech.

[excerpt from a document defining Permaculture written by Stephanie
Permaculture is a form of sustainable agriculture that employs nature
as its model, seeking to design landscapes which mimic
natural ecosystems.  It is modular and applicable to any bioregion,
therefore bearing immense potential for satisfying basic
human needs without compromising those of the Earth.  However, because
it is relationship-oriented and highly specific to
local conditions, it can be difficult to practice.  Instead of
discretely selecting individual plants, relationships between
flora must be woven together carefully, in consideration of a plant’s
relationships to other plants, to the overall
ecosystem, and to the people whose needs it may satisfy.
[..............] Permaculture-centric characteristics such as
inputs, outputs, and multiple functions - critical to the practice of
Permaculture design, our understanding of ecological
processes, and ultimately, our capacity for systems thinking. People
practicing Permaculture worldwide are discovering
relevant and useful information about plant relationships [...........]

Stephanie's original proposal for a permaculture guilds database, or
plant and animal relationship database, a project
named Permaculture Information Web (PIW), originally developed at
www.permaculture.info and organized in the
permaculture and piw mailing lists at ibiblio:

(opening comment by Scott Pittman)
In case some of you old permie hands are wondering - this is basically
a site devoted to identifying and expanding "Guilds"
Scott Pittman

Subject: [permaculture] Permaculture Information Web
From: Stephanie Gerson
Date: Wed, 19 Jan 2005 21:42:21 -0800
To: permaculture
hello everyone,
  My name is Stephanie, and I’m writing to announce an exciting project
that a few of us from this list are collaborating on, and that will
hopefully involve you all.  The project, called the Permaculture
Information Web (PIW), is an initiative to create an online database of
relationship-oriented information about plants and other organisms.  As
we all understand, Permaculture involves the weaving of meaningful
relationships between the components of a system; between organisms in
the case of an agricultural system.  Currently, there exist resources
which offer information about individual components (i.e. the PFAF
database), but none that offer information about the relationships
between them……yet.  PIW seeks to satisfy this informational need.
Users will be
able to enter names of plants growing in their gardens, learn about their
interrelationships, which functions (i.e. nitrogen-fixation) may need to
be satisfied, which natives satisfy these functions, how natives may be
substituted by edibles, medicinals, or others…
With your participation, PIW can become an incredibly rich
informational resource.  Its content will be contributed by *you* –
members of the Permaculture community with valuable information about
ecological relationships.  To participate in the project, please join our
listserv at: http://lists.ibiblio.org/mailman/listinfo/piw
and visit our website at: http://www.permaculture.info
We recently received some initial grant funding, are very committed to
bringing PIW into fruition.  Thank you, we look forward to some good

[PIW Team]
Chad Knepp
Richard Morris
Lawrence London
John Schinnerer
John Howe
Stephanie Gerson
Scott Pittman
Bear Kauffman
Paula Westmoreland

Stephanie Gerson

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